Will the real Earl Grey please stand up?

Drinking Earl Grey tea
Drinking Earl Grey tea. Photo by endut_8oy08.

Walk into any half-decent café and you’ll find it on their menu: Earl Grey tea, that wonderful blend of tea made by scenting black tea with the oil of bergamot, a citrus fruit. Short of English Breakfast and Jasmine tea, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another tea as ubiquitous as our bergamot-infused friend.

But who was Earl Grey, and who did he bribe, maim or kill to have one of the world’s most popular teas named after him?

The Earl Grey: Charles Gray, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey
Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey. Painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Earl Grey is a special title, created in 1806 for General Charles Grey – the 1st Earl Grey. Charles Grey died the following year, his title going to his son Charles – the 2nd Earl Grey. It was the 2nd Earl Grey who went on to have a tea named after him.

Earl Grey II was a prominent member of the Whig Party, his political life reaching its climax in the 1830s when he served for four years as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

During his time as Prime Minister – the first time the Whigs had been in power since 1807 – he helped push through the Reform Act of 1832, which brought reform to the House of Commons and saw the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire.

Who invented Earl Grey tea?

It’s not certain whether Earl Grey II ever drank a cup of the tea named after him, though one theory maintains that he received the tea as a gift. Jacksons of Piccadilly claim to have received the recipe for Earl Grey tea from the Earl himself, thus claiming credit for pioneering Earl Grey tea.

Of course, Jacksons of Piccadilly may have been the first British tea merchant to produce Earl Grey tea, but they certainly didn’t invent it. Sadly, those who did – the Chinese – are written about as an aside in the history of Earl Grey tea. Their creation is now re-branded as a Western construct, their ownership masked by the Britishness of the tea’s name.

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Discussion

  • 1

    I just found out about the true Earl Grey too. its fascinating to know who my favorite type of tea really was. I love fun facts like this.

  • 2

    Bergamot oranges grow in Mediterranean Europe, not China. What exactly is your source that Earl Grey originated in China?

  • 3

    Good question Craig. I have read several tea books which all say that the original recipe for Earl Grey tea originated in China. Now, it could be possible that the Chinese used some citrus fruit other than bergamot – the bergamot may have been a European addition. I haven’t found any sources that are that specific.

  • 4

    Remember the longan fruit version of the Earl Grey tea we tried from Lupicia? That has become one of my favorites for Sunday afternoon tea.

  • 5

    Kevin, I love that tea. Ended up buying a couple more tins. Truly spectacular.

    It’s funny though, I’ve served it to a few other people and they tend to be a bit put off by the smokiness. I think for some people there’s a bit of a hurdle there. Though it’s not as smoky as your regular lapsang souchong.

  • 6

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